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Poland plays down fears over nuclear power plans despite Biden animosity

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Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election will not derail Washington’s co-operation with Warsaw on plans to develop its own nuclear energy sector, Poland’s climate minister has said.

Donald Trump’s administration built close ties with Warsaw, where the rightwing government is led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party. In October the US signed an agreement to draw up a design for Poland’s proposed nuclear programme, which envisages constructing six nuclear plants with a capacity of 6-9GW in 2033-43.

But relations with Mr Biden’s incoming administration have been cooler. During his campaign, Mr Biden sparked consternation in Poland by mentioning the country in the same breath as Belarus — where Alexander Lukashenko cracked down brutally last year after claiming victory in a flawed election — and “the rise of totalitarian regimes around the world”.

Poland’s president Andrzej Duda — like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin — was among the few world leaders who did not congratulate Mr Biden on his November 3 victory until it was confirmed in mid-December by the US electoral college.

However, Michal Kurtyka, climate minister, played down concern that the change would have a significant impact on Poland’s plans. “There is an advanced discussion with the US on this subject and I think it is very promising,” he told the Financial Times.

“As far as I know there is bipartisan support for the development of nuclear energy in the US, and I wouldn’t expect any changes in a strategic decision which has been engaging [our] countries for a long time.”

Along with a 130bn zloty investment in offshore wind projects, Poland’s proposed 150bn zloty nuclear programme is intended to help cut dependence on coal. The fossil fuel provided 74 per cent of the country’s electricity in 2019, but is becoming increasingly uneconomic as the EU ratchets up its CO2 reduction targets in a bid to curb global warming.

Piotr Naimski, the government’s chief strategic energy adviser, said in November that the end of this year would be the “last moment” for Poland to pick a strategic partner for the nuclear programme.

The energy strategy envisages a “strategic co-investor” taking a 49 per cent stake, although Mr Naimski said in December that the investor’s share could be “slightly” smaller.

“We are looking not only for a seller of technology or a constructor who will build us blocks, but for a partner who will invest with us, and take on risk, including operationally,” he told media group Newseria Biznes.

France’s EDF has held talks with Poland over the project. But the frontrunner is the US, which Poland regards as its security guarantor. The Trump administration has been pushing for American companies such as nuclear reactor maker Westinghouse and engineering group Bechtel to be involved.

Michal Kurtyka, Poland’s climate minister, is confident the Washington deal will stand with Warsaw seeking to end reliance on coal © Getty Images

Mr Kurtyka said nuclear energy was an “obvious choice”, because as well as helping decarbonise the economy, it would give investing companies stable and competitive energy.

“What they expect is a reliable, zero-emission source of energy, which is climate friendly and which fits within the framework of the Paris agreement. That is why this nuclear programme . . . should be built,” he said.

Despite the climate ministry’s enthusiasm, big questions remain. One issue is timing. Many nuclear projects in the EU are far behind schedule, and just 12 years before the first plant is due on line Poland has yet to choose a location or confirm its financing model.

“Assuming that we can have the first nuclear plant up and running in 2033 is beyond optimistic,” said Joanna Flisowska, head of Greenpeace’s climate and energy unit in Poland.

“We need to replace coal power stations now, because most are already set to close by 2035 at the latest . . . So nuclear is just the wrong answer. It’s too late. It’s too expensive and it’s not really a technology that works well with renewables.”

However, other analysts say nuclear power could play a role in the longer term, especially given the EU’s new target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030, rather than the 40 per cent previously envisaged. This is expected to drive up carbon prices and make energy from coal increasingly uneconomic.

“This higher climate ambition is a game-changer, not only for Poland, but for all Europe,” said Robert Tomaszewski, an energy analyst at Polityka Insight in Warsaw.

“Our projections suggest that, before 2040, we are going to have some kind of coal exit in the energy sector in Poland. We won’t be able to use coal any more because of the prices of CO2.”

Aleksander Sniegocki, head of the energy, climate and environment programme at WiseEuropa, a think-tank, said nuclear power could play a role in Poland, “but not like in the French model where 80 per cent of the energy comes from nuclear”.

“It can really facilitate the end of the energy transition in the 40s,” he said. “It could for example be the source of hydrogen, which can be produced not only from green energy but also from nuclear.”



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Toyota faces Thai bribery probe over tax dispute

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Toyota is under investigation in Thailand over allegations that consultants hired by the world’s largest carmaker tried to bribe local officials in a tax dispute, according to Thai authorities, court documents and a person with knowledge of the matter.

The probe followed a filing last month in which Toyota revealed that it had reported “possible anti-bribery violations” related to its Thai subsidiary to the US Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission.

Toyota is one of the biggest foreign investors in Thailand, where it makes a large range of cars, vans and pick-up trucks for the local market and for export. The country is Toyota’s biggest manufacturing hub in south-east Asia. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, car sales had been strong in a market, where it has a 31 per cent share.

This month, Thailand’s Court of Justice said in a statement that it would take action against any of its judges found to have taken bribes. The statement, which the court described as a move to “clarify facts” in a news report on a foreign website, directly referenced a tax dispute involving Toyota.

“If the Court of Justice has received information or explicitly found that any judge committed an act of corruption to their duty, whether it is about bribery or not, the Court of Justice will resolutely investigate and punish any action which dishonours judges, undermines the neutrality of the court, or causes society [to] lose faith in the Thai justice system,” it said.

According to the court, the case involved a tax dispute worth Bt10bn ($320m) between Toyota Motor Thailand and tax authorities over imports of parts for its Prius hybrid model. 

The affair dates back to 2015, when Toyota’s Thai subsidiary was accused by local customs authorities of understating taxes by claiming that the imported Prius vehicles were assembled from completely knocked down kits, or imported parts that were later assembled in Thailand.

CKDs would have been subject to a discounted tax rate under a Japanese-Thai free trade agreement, but if the cars were fully assembled before being imported they would have attracted a much higher rate. 

Toyota appealed against a decision by customs authorities to impose a higher duty in 2015, but lost. 

Thailand’s Court of Justice has said that it had accepted a petition to review the case, but had not yet begun hearing it.

In its regulatory filing last month, Toyota warned that the US investigations regarding its Thai subsidiary could result in civil or criminal penalties, but the company has not disclosed any detail on the allegations.

In a statement, Toyota said it was co-operating with the investigations and declined to comment on the tax dispute in Thailand. “We take any allegations of wrongdoing seriously and are committed to ensuring that our business practices comply with all applicable government regulations,” it said.

The SEC and the DOJ declined to comment.



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Boris Johnson cancels India trip after Covid cases surge in country

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UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India this month has been cancelled as the country battles a new variant and a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

A joint statement by the British and Indian governments said the decision to scrap the visit scheduled for next week was prompted by the “current coronavirus situation”.

The trip, during which Johnson had hoped to discuss the prospects of a closer trading partnership with India, was initially planned to run for four days but had been scaled back. The two leaders will speak remotely instead, with plans to meet in person later this year.

The cancellation came as India’s capital city region has been put under lockdown and authorities have prohibited the use of oxygen except for essential services, as the country battles a surge in coronavirus cases that is overwhelming hospitals.

India continues to set single-day records of coronavirus cases, reporting more than 273,000 new infections and 1,619 deaths on Monday, with the number of new cases growing by an average of 7 per cent a day, one of the fastest rates in any big country.

The surge is believed to be linked to a new B.1.617 variant that was first discovered in the country.

British health officials are investigating whether the variant should be reclassified from a “variant under investigation” to a “variant of concern” following the discovery of 77 cases in the UK.

“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it’s increased transmissibility, increased severity, or vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet, but we’re looking at the data on a daily basis”, Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said on Sunday.

Officials in Delhi announced it would impose a strict lockdown for a week, following Mumbai and other cities that have already placed curbs on movement.

States are running short of beds, drugs and oxygen, leading the central government to restrict use of the gas. “The supply of oxygen for industrial purposes by manufacturers and suppliers is prohibited forthwith from 22/04/2021 till further orders,” the central government said.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, said “oxygen has become an emergency” in the region because its quota had been diverted to other states. He warned there were “less than 100 ICU beds” available.

The new restrictions have been imposed even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have hosted huge political rallies and allowed religious festivals attended by tens of thousands of maskless people in recent weeks.

Amit Shah, India’s home minister, told the Indian Express newspaper that he was “concerned” about the variant and the “surge is mainly because of the new mutants of the virus”. But he was “confident we will win” over the disease and said there was not yet a need to impose a national lockdown.

Bed shortages in India have forced authorities to re-establish emergency coronavirus hospitals in banquet halls, train stations and hotels that had been shut down following the previous peak in September. Crematoriums in the state of Gujarat and Delhi are running 24 hours a day, while cemeteries are running out of burial spaces.

Coronavirus patients have also been struggling to access medicines. More than 800 injections of remdesivir, an antiviral drug commonly used in India as part of Covid-19 treatment, were stolen from a hospital in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, at the weekend.

India is also facing a vaccine supply crunch and has frozen international exports of jabs to meet domestic demand. New Delhi pledged on Friday to increase monthly production of Covaxin, a vaccine made by Indian manufacturer Bharat Biotech, to 100m from 10m by September. The government also said last week that it would fast-track the approval of foreign vaccines in an attempt to boost supply and cleared Russia’s Sputnik V for use in the country.

The majority of the more than 120m Indians that have been vaccinated have received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab manufactured by Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer. The Serum Institute has struggled to increase its monthly capacity of more than 60m doses a month due to a fire at its plant earlier in the year and equipment supply shortages from the US.

Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch in London





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The limits of China’s taming of tech

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The record fine handed out this month to Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce giant, was a welcome step toward combating anti-competitive behaviour. The $2.8bn penalty put Alibaba and other tech companies on notice that creating siloed fiefdoms designed to trap customers and merchants within their ecosystems will not be tolerated.

It was addressing a longstanding problem. Many of China’s ecommerce companies operate “walled gardens” that prevent interactions with rival platforms. For example, Alibaba’s Taobao ecommerce app keeps users from paying for goods using the payment app of rival Tencent. Tencent’s social media app, WeChat, prevents clips from being shared directly from ByteDance’s video-sharing app. 

Last week China’s internet and market regulators signalled the seriousness of their intent. They gave tech companies one month to fix anti-competitive practices, telling them to conduct “comprehensive self-inspections” and “completely rectify” problems, following which they would need to publicly promise to abide by the rules. The aim is create a commercially open and competitive internet.

It is tempting to argue that regulators in the west could take a leaf out of China’s book. But to hold China up as an example of competitive best practice would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Although Beijing is giving its monopolistically-minded internet companies — which are almost all private enterprises — a rap on the knuckles, it shows no sign of applying the same standards to vast swaths of the economy that have been dominated by state-owned giants for decades. 

The market dominance of these behemoths of state capitalism is an issue that affects not only domestic competitors but also foreign multinationals that operate in China. A trenchant joint paper last week from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, and the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, took aim at the increasingly unfair advantages that this system gives China.

While it is true that China has opened up sectors such as financial services to foreign capital in recent years and allowed foreign brands to win market share in luxury goods and pharmaceuticals, broad sectors of the economy remain fully or partially closed or to overseas investors. 

Often the barriers erected to block or stymie competition are informal. Authorities can deliberately favour domestic companies in public procurement, are more ready to grant approval for licenses, subject foreign firms to arbitrary inspections or require them to re-engineer products to meet idiosyncratic domestic standards.

Such drawbacks are not new. But they are taking on an extra urgency as Chinese companies become leaders in an increasing number of industries and the country’s technological prowess draws level with the US and Europe in a list of industries. The key problem now, says the ECFR/Rhodium report, is that Chinese multinationals are using the advantage of a protected home market to build up resources that they then deploy in competition with western counterparts abroad.

This sets the scene for friction. China should extend its anti-monopolistic scrutiny from its own privately owned internet companies to several state-dominated sectors of its economy, taking care to open to foreign multinationals as much as domestic competitors. If it decides against doing this — as is likely — it will be furnishing Europeans and Americans with ammunition to argue against extending access to Chinese corporations in their own markets.



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